Swedish Language Blog

Hej Hej! Posted by on Jun 27, 2008 in Culture

Everywhere you go in Sweden, people “hej” at you. If you don’t know that “hej” means “hello” in Swedish, you might be slightly confused as to why everybody is trying to get your attention. Because that’s what we use “hey” for in English, among many other things, right?

Hej!” in Swedish doesn’t have any of the negative English “hey!” connotations. Instead, it’s a multi-purpose greeting used by practically everyone in the country. It sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Like the kind of word you’d only say to those with whom you have a personal relationship. Yet in Sweden that word managed to cross from being just an interjection in casual speech to a national greeting.

And how did that happen?

The urban legend goes that in the late 1960s many foreign tourists complained that Swedes lacked proper etiquette when it came to greetings and social interactions. And because of that, the country was perceived as less than polite. The national Tourist Board overlords decided to quickly rectify this situation and instructed all hospitality workers to show off their good manners by greeting all and any customers. And a helpful linguistic genius came up with the idea of promoting the use of “hej”. It made perfect sense, “hej” is a simple word, sounds almost the same in any language and anybody can pronounce it correctly. In no time it became the standard greeting in the tourist industry. And from there, it migrated to other walks of life. That’s the story was told to me by an official from the Stockholm Tourist Office.

Is there any truth in this legend? A little. Among certain groups of people, “hej!” had been used as a greeting since the mid 1800s. Then around 1870s, when the students in Uppsala got the wind of it, the word became more and more popular. In the beginning of course, it was a greeting only used with people one was familiar with. You wouldn’t go all “hej!” on perfect strangers. For those occasions, Swedish had (and still has) more refined ways of saying “hello”.

Then came the radical 1970s. Sweden had just gone through a massive overhaul of its national language, the process known as “du-reformen”. Suddenly, it became OK to use the pronoun “du” (second person, singular) when talking to total strangers. Egalitarianism at its finest! “Hej!” quickly followed suit and became the greeting of choice for the masses.

Today, in addition to “hej!”, you may also hear these two variants:

Hej hej! = when said twice it implies friendliness and excitement to see you.
Hejsan! = this would be the “polite” version of “hej!” that you say when you want to be just a little bit more “official” and “proper.”

And finally,
Hejdå! = meaning “goodbye”.

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  1. Maria Ebbeskog:

    The word hej or hey puzzels me. When someone says that word I expect people to stop as I am hard of hearing. But most of the time the person is gone 🙁

  2. Ivor Rorquist:

    I it is with joy and anticipation that I, on a daily basis if possible, tune in on your blog about daily life in Sweden. Your article on blueberry picking brought back warm childhood memories of my family’s yearly foray (actually our three day yearly vacation)into blueberry country in Western Canada, the blueberry area was located some sixty miles north of our farm.So we rattled in a Model T Ford these sixty miles over gravel roads armed with the necessary pots and pans needed for efficient berry picking as well as the detailed instructions from Dad regarding the way the job should be carried out. So, with Dad supervising we marched into blueberry country, a land of towering spruce trees, sandy soil and mosquitoes. We, each and every one had a quota to fulfil and Dad was there to ensure that the quotas were met To be sure the quotas were not very onerous but to an eight year old berry picking was not at the top of the list of delightful activities. Looking back some eighty years leaves one with a warm feeling of nostalgia and a wish that the experience could somehow be repeated. Such is life!! Incidentally, my dad and mother immagrated from Sweden early in the ninteen hundreds and began farming in an almost totally Swedish and Norwegian community. It was into this community that I was born in 1920.
    I am almost certain that I began speaking Swedish before I spoke English.
    Anna, keep up the good work — your blog is delightful–


  3. Anna:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. It’s comments like yours that warm my heart and make me glad I write this blog!
    My best,

  4. NJSwede:

    On our travels to Sweden to visit family, ‘Hej’ is said with heartfelt kindness every time by every one. There is nothing negative or challenging about it, and it is a very welcoming sound. Americans might be a little TOO defensive.

    Hej då!

  5. Anna:

    Hi NJSwede!

    I think the problem here lies with the different “hejs”, so to speak. As you know, in the US, “hey!” has a slightly different tone and context. Even though both “hejs” sound the same, the frame of reference is a bit different. I guess for some people it might be hard to make the switch, especially if they’re not used to the friendly Swedish “hej!”. Know what I’m sayin’? 😉

  6. Ernie:

    …Hej! I am posting my first comment to your blog but I have been receiving your blogs since Augusti. I am new here in Swedenand find everything strange because I am used to hearing others speaks in english or in my own native tounge. I am also taking the infamous SFI course before I can do anything at all. I am bored but what can I do? Nothing, really!!
    … Keep up the good works, I am ‘läsa’ing what you skriv, lol! I like what you write. I have a friendster and I am bloging my heart out there. If you happen to have one please visit it one of this day. Ty again.

  7. Christina:

    Interesting article.
    However, as a Swede I would disagree with what you write when it comes to the variation Hejsan. It is not a more formal way of saying Hej, but in my experience it is rather the opposite. Something you say when you want to be a bit more friendly or casual

  8. Anna:

    Hi Christina!
    You know, I thought exactly the same as you, but the lady at Svenska Akademien whom I asked about it when I was preparing that post explained that it was actually the opposite. And so I followed what she said and wrote it as such. After all, who am I to argue with an expert from Svenska Akademien, right? 😉

    • A Swede:

      @Anna “Hejsan” is 100% definitely NOT a more formal version of “hej”, but a less formal one, regardless of what the Swedish Academy might say.

  9. Christina:

    true… they are supposed to know… although language belongs to the people who speak it and not to a few experts…
    Maybe it was originally used as a formal way of saying hi and nowadays used as a less formal way…? I don’t know, but it is a common word and everyone I have met who has used it has used it in an informal way of saying hej, both in written and spoken Swedish. If you get a formal letter it will never ever says ‘Hejsan’, but it sometimes starts with ‘Hej’…

  10. Agne:

    hihi 🙂 ‘hejsan’ maybe was formal before Karlsson.. not anymore

  11. John:

    My only experience of Swedish is via Wallander, currently being broadcast on the BBC. It is surprising, comparing dialogue with subtitles, how many words and phrases the two languages have in common.

    “hej” seems very complicated. On one occasion, in a recent episode, a policeman says “hey da” when he is obviously saying “hello” to a woman complaining about a dumped car. Is this meant to be dialect, or to imply that the character is stupid, or something else?

    • A Swede:

      @John That’s because both are Germanic languages.

  12. Ãmir:

    I’m a bit confused now! I have heard people using Hej hej! as both a greeting and farewell, and I don’t quite understand it! And can u also explain more about Adjo and tjäna?


  13. nada:

    jag och mamma är hema

  14. moa:


  15. Clayton M:

    My Danish friend is of the opinion the “Hej” has it’s roots in the English “Hey”. Do you happen to know if “Hej” originally comes from Swedish language? (this will settle a minor debate!) Thanks, -Clayton

  16. sarasweden:

    I have to agree with christina here. “hejsan” is in no sense a formal word in sweden today. i have actually never heard of it being anything other than informal and most people would never use it when talking to people they don´t know. /sara

  17. fredrik:

    “hej” and “hej hej” can be used both as a greeting and a farewell. “hej då” only as farewell. “hejsan” is a friendlier way of saying “hej” but I can’t say that it is more formal or more casual than just “hej”. It’s just different.

    By the way, swedes also have “tjena” which I guess originated around Gothenburg. Tjena is much more informal than “hej” and you can also use it when departing as a farewell. You can also put “tjena” and “hej” together as “tjena-hej” which is only used when leaving!

    such a funny little language swedish.. love it =)

    Reference: born and raised in southern sweden by swedish parents (now living in spain!)

  18. Jerry Nelson:

    I studied Swedish in 1975 in Uppsala, I am happy to read from your blog that I probably do not have to worry about when to use “du” eller “ni” anymore! My brain would stumble over this as not only did I have to evaluate my relationship to the person, I had to remember the variations! Tack tack! Jag läser din blogg varje dag.

  19. Simon The Swede:

    Nowadays you can even say Hej to complete strangers, Hej is infact the most used word when it comes to meet someone, almost no one says Hallå (Hello) to others. It’s very polite to say Ni (Du in a more polite art) to a bit richer person, or the person is also a member of a very very fine family. If you say “Du” To a person who is fine in Sweden you might be unpolite in the persons eyes. Sound it silly? Yes it is, but that how the Swedish language is. Swedish bad language: “Jävlar” means fuck, but it have no connections to make love, like in the english language, “fan” (the most used bad word) means the same as jävlar, Ä besides is outspelled like you say “ehhhh” but more round. Rövhål, is a word to say if you really hate some one, it means “Asshole” sorry but I can’t find how to tell you how to get it outspelled in the english mouth. Skitstövel, a rare bad word who often is said to Men that have act very dumb och silly to a woman. Men can also say Skitstövel, but that’s more rare. Hmm I have so much to tell you ladys and gentlemen!

    Hej jag heter Simon, means “Hello my name is Simon” good to know thing if you visit Sweden. The most Swedish persons are blond and have blue eyes, so if you see a darker person its most like that it’s a imigrant.

    “Ring mig” means Call Me
    “Halloj” is a slang of Hallå (Hello)

    “Tjenare” Is another word to make a greetings, it’s more a word to say to one you really know well. but also a friends friend.

    Never ever use the bad words if isin’t is neccesary, Swedish people won’t back down to a fight.

    “Krogen” in English means: The pub, so how to say What is the shortest way to the local pub?” I tell you rightaway, “Vad är den kortaste vägen till krogen?”

    That’s all I can think out right now, my mail is: Sl.lekander@live.com if you need more help with a outspell or spell of a word.

    • A Swede:

      @Simon The Swede Haha I’m usually not too sceptical of generalisations (as they are sometimes useful and necessary) as most people are (especially Swedes…) , but your prejudices towards Swedes are just as hilarious as they are untrue. “Most people are blond and have blue eyes”, “Swedes won’t back down to a fight” (Swedes are probably the most timid and spineless people in the universe), saying “ni” to “richer persons”, no one does that! And most coloured people in Sweden are probably born here or came here as very young and thus identify completely as Swedes, not as immigrants. Though there are of course many immigrants in Sweden as well.

      “Jävlar” literally means “devils” (though “devil” as a noun is spelt “djävlar”, I suppose the “d” is omitted for convenience). It is used in the same way as “fuck” in English but they definitely don’t _mean_ the same thing. “Fan” also means “the devil” but more like the main man Mr Devil himself. This is obviously connected to the fact that Sweden (unfortunately) is a Christian country. It would be so awesome if we were still vikings!

  20. www.go-to-sweden.com:

    That is so funny, and you have a good point. There is a lot of Hej-ing going on.
    Come by my page for more fun facts about Sweden if your interested..

  21. Caroline G.:

    When I lived in Sweden (before the FLood – it seems) people would often say Go’morron or even just ‘morron to people they might know by sight. Surely, some people still do?

  22. Allison Shields:

    I need help for my mother in Tenhult. Is there anyone who lives close. Jonkoping? Please help. Thank you

  23. Allison Shields:

    Hey all…Please disregard my earlier post for help. I have found a friend who has sent the police and rendered aid. My mother was ill. I now know how to get in touch with who I need in case there is ever a need in the future. Hard way to learn a lesson, but it was needed. Tak sa mycket!

    • Mash:

      @Allison Shields I’m so glad you were able to get help for your mother.

      Such is love.

  24. Filippa:

    Greetings, I’d like to inform anyone who wishes to pursue learning the Swedish language that “Hejsan” is far from a “formal” or “polite” way of speaking, it’s actually perceived rather as a bit more juvenile and playful than the other variations mentioned. If one feels the need to be exceedingly “polite” or “formal” it’s safe to say that goddag (good day) or godkväll (good evening) is to be preferred. These two are rather rare in usage, so I woudln’t recommend using them, since it might seem a bit strange. “Hej” isn’t a way of greeting friends and family, it’s a way of greeting strangers, senior citizens (even those with whom you aren’t previously acquainted), your boss, your new in-laws. We’re liberal that way, you use about the same vocabulary with your family as you’d use with new acquaintances (of course, there are nuances, needless to say).

    Also, that Simon bloke a few commentors above is obviously mentally deficient, because a very small percentage of Sweden’s inhabitants have blond hair and blue eyes. But it’s true, there are REFUGEES in Sweden (of course, there probably are a fair few immigrants as well, but they are just as likely to be blond and blue eyed as the romanticised “majority” of Swedes our dear friend Simon so obligingly fancied us with). Nonetheless, most (as there might be occasional exceptions) refugees speak Swedish, some better than others but undeniably enough to get by.

    Another thing that Simon seems to have thoroughly misunderstood is that there is but one situation where one should refer to a single person with the pronoun “Ni”, when talking to the monarch. So if you were to refer to someone using “Ni”, you’ll most likely wind up looking rather silly, unless you do so in jest.

    As a conclusion, formal language is bull. Swedish is more or less devoid of it, which should come as a relief to anyone who wishes to master Swedish, because it’s at least one thing of your back.

    I hope I could be of some, however slight it might’ve been, help.

  25. Chuck Guerrero:

    In the southern United States, people often greet each other with “hey”, which means the same as “hello”. This is not considered to be rude unless it is said brusquely. I don’t know where this came from. It’s just something we do here in the South.

  26. Christoper:

    Well i Think Hej is more Like hi. And its prenounced the same way As hi in english. But Hej is not a swedish word its a local national scandinavian word, and as most words or translations it comes from the english languess. Hej to everyone from denmark.

  27. Carl:

    “Hej” uttalas möjligtvis som “hi” på danska (but like “hey” in Swedish). vad som kommer varifrån är svårt att säga, men “hej” har moderna rötter sedan slutet av 1800-talet då engelskans inflytande på svenskan var mycket litet.

    As others have mentioned: the widespread use of “hej” is very likely to be caused by “du-reformen”. In the 50’s, people were still doing “titel-avläggning” a sort of “title-abandonment” in which you were supposed to say your name and college graduation year to each other, and then you’d address each other as “du”.

    And before “du”, pronouns were mostly avoided if possible: people used passive tense (“önskas te?”) or titles (“vad önskar ingenjörskan?”). Yes, the last one translates to “mrs engineer”!

  28. Johan:

    I love this, I by accident clicked on a link to this blog. As for the word hej, hejs, hejssan, hejdå and every other form of it, it is a tricky language to learn. Many words have multiple meanings such as Hej can be used as a shorter version of goodbye. often it is because we like to shorten the words to make it easier. Just like “Vad sa du?”(what did you say?) often is said as just “Va?” (What?).

  29. Ulf_S:

    I agree that the formal “You” (ie “Ni”) is rarely used today. Traditionally, it was more or less used as a way to talk down to people like servants or to markedly keep your distance. The friendly and polite way to address people was in the third person, and this is practically reserved for royalty today. “Du” was reserved for family and friends.

    It would be very rude to talk down to the king by asking him “What do You think?” when the proper way is “What does the King think?”.

    It’s a bit funny that young people today sometimes use “Ni” when they try to be polite, but don’t realize that it’s actually rude.

  30. Abigail:

    I really love this…i’ve found quite some interesting words that i really needed to impress someone.This is bra:-)

  31. Abigail:


  32. Little:

    I just Want to say: hejsan is a more childish and in one way, more friendly way of saying hej. It may not be more polite, or formal way. In fact, it isnt. The more formal way of sayin hej is a totally Different Word: goddag. This is not used often though, at least not among those who I know.

  33. Greg Nacci:

    Just wondering, before I consider subscribing… is that this an actual, individually composed letter to every single subscriber, or does every single writer compose a single letter each week and send the same composition to all of your subscribers they’re assigned to write to?

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  35. Mikael Evard:

    Something is really wrong in this blog post!

    “Hejsan” is NOT a polite version of “hej”.
    It is the opposite!
    It is very familiar and implies that you are very friendly with the person you are writing or speaking to.
    You should for example NEVER use “Hejsan” when you write a letter of application for a job. That shows you dont know how to express your self properly,
    Trust me, I am a journalist that also am educated in Swedish language,science of language and sience of literature

    So this is totally wrong what is said in the post:
    “Hejsan! = this would be the “polite” version of “hej!” that you say when you want to be just a little bit more “official” and “proper.”

  36. Heather:

    I have sort of a difficult question. My father is of Swedish and Danish heritage and remembers hearing his older relatives saying something like “taks gidde ha” for a goodbye/farewell. Of course none of us in this immediate family are literate in Swedish so we aren’t sure how to spell what he is saying, but we aren’t finding any thing like that via google meaning goodbye. Any thoughts? Thank you!

    • Marcus Cederström:

      @Heather Hi Heather, it’s probably the phrase “tack ska du ha,” which translates (word-for-word) as “thanks should you have.” Really, it’s just another way of saying thank you!

  37. Daniel:

    Wonderful blog. Have been following this site for sometime. hej. hej-hej, hejsan, etc..A lot of back n forth discussion on how to use them. Sounds people have different views based on which part of Sweden they live and which period of time. Little uncomfortable for someone beginning to learn svenska and would like to have straight shot.